My Successful Search for the Meaning of Life
IT WAS the year 1951. Crowds of people lined the streets to get a glimpse of many prominent stars of stage and screen as one limousine after another made its way to the Fine Arts Theatre in Beverly Hills, California. The occasion was the premier showing of A Place in the Sun, based on my cousin Theodore Dreiser’s famous novel An American Tragedy. It was Paramount Pictures’ Academy Award contender for the year and was directed by George Stevens, one of their top directors. It featured three of the outstanding stars of the day, Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift, and Shelley Winters. Why was I there in one of those big limousines, passing through crowds of screaming people? And why did I feel so out of place in that environment? Let’s go back to the beginning to see how this all came about.
I was born in one of the most significant periods in all history—October 1914. On the 20th day of that month at about half past four in the afternoon, in our home in Seattle, Washington, I was delivered by the doctor.
In those days our family lived on Alki Beach in a section called Bonair. Soon our family grew to five, consisting of my parents, my older brother and a younger one, and me. We lived in a large, beautiful home facing the beach, which provided a most picturesque setting where one could watch the ships and ferries plying the waters of Puget Sound between downtown Seattle and other cities across the way.
Following the stock-market crash in 1929, the economic situation became so bad that we traded our home on Alki Beach for a food store in the Highland Park section of Seattle, which provided us a small income during the Depression years.
In 1938 my mother died, leaving my father all alone to run the store. I joined him in the business, and we turned it into a modern food market. Soon we had a thriving business.
Then came the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and shortly afterward I found myself facing the draft and World War II. We had to sell the business, which provided my father with a little money to live on, and I volunteered for the army just a few days before I would have been drafted. Going into the army disturbed my conscience, to say the least, and I remember how I prayed to God that I would not have to kill anyone. After basic training, I was assigned to the Transportation Corps. Eventually I was commissioned second lieutenant.
My Association With Theodore Dreiser
By now it was 1945, and I was assigned to the Los Angeles Port of Embarkation, where I served as a cargo security officer on ships that were chartered by the army to transport supplies and a few troops to locations in the Pacific. Between assignments I would sometimes visit my cousin Theodore Dreiser and his wife, Helen. They had a spacious home in West Hollywood and were most hospitable to me on such occasions. Dreiser had a very searching mind and liked to sound me out as to what I thought of the places I visited.
Of course, Dreiser knew that I was also a cousin of Congressman Martin Dies of Texas, chairman of the Dies Committee, the forerunner of the Un-American Activities Committee. Many of the writers and other professionals in the movie industry were being raked over the coals for Communist leanings, and Dreiser was not spared, since he was known to be sympathetic to the Russians. So during one of my first visits, he asked me: “Do you go along with that cousin of yours, Martin Dies?” I assured him that I had no connection with Martin or any of his political aims, which made my relationship with Dreiser more amicable.
After Japan surrendered, on September 2, 1945, I decided to remain in the army a while, as I was getting to see many interesting parts of the world. Soon I was promoted to first lieutenant and assigned as officer in charge of the commissary aboard one of the large troop ships. While in Japan, I took some leave and traveled through Japan from Yokohama to Hiroshima, where the atom bomb had destroyed the city.
The morning I arrived in Hiroshima, I saw people still sleeping in the park for lack of housing. Needless to say, I felt most uncomfortable walking around there, since it was evident that just about anyone I met had lost relatives and friends in that terrible holocaust. The agony I saw in their faces, as well as the real or imagined hatred in their eyes toward those of us in uniform, was something sickening to the heart.
I Begin My Search for Meaning
Because of Hiroshima and the many cases of disease and poverty that I saw, I began reasoning on the meaning of life. Being aboard ships at sea provided a lot of time to think about such things. On occasion, I would talk to the chaplain on board to see if he could answer some of my questions concerning the injustices of life. None of those chaplains had any satisfying answers.
Theodore Dreiser died in December 1945, after spending a lifetime searching for the meaning of life. In his essay entitled “My Creator,” he finally admitted that he was no closer to the solution then than at the beginning. Helen Dreiser, his widow, also a cousin of mine, was working on her autobiography, to be entitled My Life With Dreiser. She had been urging me to come to Hollywood to assist her with the editing of her manuscript and to handle some of the business affairs with various agents respecting the publication of Theodore’s works, which were being produced in many countries. So in December 1947, I left the army and began living on the Dreiser estate in West Hollywood.
But I didn’t give up in my quest for the meaning of life. Helen Dreiser was also seeking a spiritual understanding of life, and hence we began visiting various groups, searching for something that made sense. None of the groups had any satisfying answers.
Later, while we were in Gresham, Oregon, visiting Helen’s mother, I was introduced to one of Jehovah’s Witnesses who played the electric organ in some of the big hotels in Portland. We got into a discussion of religion, and many of the things he said seemed to make sense. When he suggested that one of their ministers call when we got back to Los Angeles, I readily agreed.
Upon returning to Los Angeles, we were promptly visited by one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. He arranged for us to have a weekly Bible study with another Witness and his wife, both of whom were pioneers (full-time ministers). The study got off to a rather rocky start because of some of my preconceived ideas, but these were soon dislodged by logically reasoning on the Bible.
It was now early 1950, and there was a lot of interest in Dreiser’s works at that time. Paramount Pictures was in the process of producing motion picture versions of two of Dreiser’s most celebrated novels: An American Tragedy, to be called A Place in the Sun, for release in 1951, and Sister Carrie, for subsequent release under the title Carrie in the film version. These motion pictures were Paramount’s Academy Award contenders two years in a row. So it was an important year for Helen, and having completed her manuscript entitled My Life With Dreiser, she left for New York City, where she was to meet with the officials of the World Publishing Company, which was to publish her manuscript.
I Was Convinced I Had Found the Meaning of Life
While she was away, I continued my study of the Bible, in time learning what it was like to go from door-to-door talking about the Bible. By the time Helen Dreiser returned from New York, I was sure that I had at last found the meaning of life, for which I had been searching. But what a surprise when Helen announced that she wanted nothing more to do with the Bible study! Evidently her associations in New York convinced her that what she was learning from the Bible was not popular with the world. She put it plainly: “It rules out everything else.” So she refused to study the Bible with us any longer.
By now it was clear that it would be out of harmony with the truth for me to remain in the army reserve. I was determined to be baptized as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. A special baptism was arranged for me at the home of a Witness who had a swimming pool. Having made my dedication to Jehovah, I was baptized on August 19, 1950. I then wrote the army advising them that since I was an ordained minister, I was no longer able to serve in the army reserve. While my resignation was at first refused, a few months later, I was granted an honorable discharge.
In the meantime, Paramount Pictures was about to release A Place in the Sun, and Helen and I were invited to a private dinner hosted by George Stevens, the director. We were advised that the world premier would be held at the Fine Arts Theatre in Beverly Hills, and arrangements were being made that upon our arrival at the theater, Helen, as wife of the author, would speak over a national radio hookup. This was to be my cousin’s big night, and I was expected to accompany her. So at the appointed hour, we hired a limousine, and in all our finery, we headed for the theater. We slowly made our way through crowds of people, who lined the street hoping to see some of the famous movie stars expected to arrive for the showing.
How did I feel about my part in that ostentatious display? In times past, I had seen events of that kind in the movies and had wondered what it would be like to be in that kind of limelight. But now, having gained a knowledge of the truth, I felt out of place. Perhaps I sensed Jehovah’s disapproval of such things in view of what the Bible says 1 John 2:16: “The showy display of one’s means of life . . . does not originate with the Father, but originates with the world.” It was easy to see that such glitter and glamour were out of harmony with my new Christian way of life. While I enjoyed the excellent motion picture, I felt relieved when it was all over.
Shortly afterward, Helen Dreiser suffered a stroke that left her partially paralyzed. A second one made it impossible for her to cope with business affairs any longer. Her sister Myrtle Butcher applied for permission to be her guardian and wanted to take her to her own home in Gresham, Oregon. I did not contest the application, since I felt it would be best for Helen, who would be in need of much care, which her sister could provide. So now I was out of a job. What was I going to do? I had confidence in Jesus’ promise at Matthew 6:33: “Keep on, then, seeking first the kingdom and his righteousness, and all these other things will be added to you.”
Since I now had only myself to look after, my father having died a few months earlier, I wanted to serve Jehovah full-time. Almost at once, I was rewarded with an offer of part-time work, which gave me just what I needed to start serving Jehovah as a full-time preacher of the good news of God’s Kingdom. As Jesus said would be the case, Jehovah has taken care of me all these more than 42 years that I have been in his full-time service.
In the summer of 1953, I attended my first international convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses, at Yankee Stadium in New York City, and what a thrilling experience that turned out to be! I had by then nearly completed my first year as a pioneer, and while I was very happy in that evangelizing work, I had the desire to reach out for an even greater share in Kingdom service. Earlier I had put in an application for full-time service at the Society’s headquarters, and now at this convention I also put in an application for missionary training at the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead. Shortly after returning to Los Angeles, how surprised I was to receive an invitation to serve at the Society’s headquarters, called Bethel!
With mixed emotions I entered Bethel on October 20, 1953, wondering what it would be like and whether I would be as happy there as I had been as a pioneer. But throughout the past 41 years of my Bethel service, I have never once regretted making that decision. The many privileges that I have enjoyed while here at Bethel have brought me far greater joy and happiness than I could ever have experienced in any other form of Kingdom service.
In 1955, Helen Dreiser died, and I was appointed as an executor and eventual trustee of her estate. In making out his will, Theodore Dreiser had left everything to his wife, and the handling of her estate involved the rights to all his copyrighted works. Helen had told me that Dreiser was a regular reader of the Bible, and in going through his library, I noted that he would sometimes make notes in the margin of his Bible about an alternate rendering in one of the other Bible translations.
Dreiser and Jehovah’s Witnesses
Of course, I knew nothing about Jehovah’s Witnesses when I had discussions with Dreiser, but I found out later that he was aware of the neutral stand of Jehovah’s Witnesses. In his book entitled America Is Worth Saving, he praised them for their stand on the flag-salute issue. Dreiser was not afraid to take a firm stand on something he believed in, and if I had known the Bible as I do now, most likely we would have had some very interesting discussions.
Looking back over the 45 years since I began to study the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses, I can honestly say that I have indeed found the meaning of life that I had been searching for. My questions concerning the injustices of life were well answered by learning that the god and ruler of this world is Satan the Devil, rather than the loving, almighty God, Jehovah. (John 14:30; 2 Corinthians 4:4; 1 John 4:8) And what a cause for rejoicing to learn that God’s Kingdom was established in the heavens in October 1914 and to know that it will soon take over the rule of the earth and break up the works of the Devil!—1 John 3:8; Revelation 20:10.
In the meantime, to know the Sovereign Lord Jehovah, to have a personal relationship with him, and to have a meaningful life in his Kingdom service might well be likened to the pearl that a merchant found in his travels. That pearl was of such high value that he promptly sold everything he had just to possess it.—Matthew 13:45, 46.
Having found such a treasure, I appreciate the words of the psalmist David: “That I may dwell in the house of Jehovah all the days of my life, to behold the pleasantness of Jehovah and to look with appreciation upon his temple.” (Psalm 27:4)—As told by Harold Dies.
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Going into the army disturbed my conscience, to say the least
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Serving at Bethel since 1953